The command to love your enemies is one of Jesus’ most well-known, yet challenging teachings. It can be found in Matthew 5:43-48, Luke 6:27-36, and implied in other passages. When Jesus instructed His followers to “love your enemies”, He was calling them to a radically different way of life than the world offers. But what exactly did He mean by this? Let’s explore the context and meaning behind this powerful teaching.
The Old Testament Law
In the Old Testament, the law of “an eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:24) was meant to limit excessive retaliation, not encourage it. However, over time it was misapplied to justify holding grudges and seeking vengeance against enemies. The prevalent thought was that it’s perfectly normal and acceptable to hate those who hate you or treat you badly. Most people operated according to the world’s system of retaliation and hatred against enemies.
Jesus came along and took the Law to a whole new level. He called His followers to a higher standard than the world – the radical ethic of loving your enemies and overcoming evil with good. This was in stark contrast to the accepted thinking of the day about how to treat enemies.
The Context of Loving Your Enemies
When Jesus gave the command to “love your enemies”, it was in the context of a series of seemingly impossible commands – to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give to those who ask, do good to those who harm you, and be perfect as your Father is perfect (Matthew 5:39-48). Clearly, Jesus meant for this ethic of love and mercy to govern all areas of life.
Right before commanding His followers to love their enemies, Jesus said they should love and pray for those who persecute them. This makes it clear that by “enemies”, Jesus did not merely mean those who are rude or annoying, but rather those who inflict harm and persecution against His people.
A Higher Standard
Loving your enemies requires you to operate by a higher standard than the world. Jesus explained that even sinners and tax collectors love those who love them back (Matthew 5:46). There’s nothing extraordinary about that. But the Christian ethic of loving our enemies demonstrates the character of God and sets us apart from the world.
When Jesus calls us to love our enemies, He’s instructing us to intentionally serve, sacrifice for, and extend mercy to those who do not deserve it. This goes against our natural tendencies. But it’s when we love those who hate us that the transforming power of God’s love shines most brightly through us.
Bless and Do Not Curse
Romans 12:14 expands on what it means to love your enemies: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” To love our enemies means speaking blessings into their lives, desiring God’s best for them, and determining to only do them good – even when they harm us. This is only possible by God’s grace at work within us.
The Example of Jesus
Of course, the greatest demonstration of what it means to love your enemies is exemplified by Jesus Himself. While being crucified, Jesus prayed over His enemies, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). And in Acts 7:60, the martyr Stephen called upon Jesus and uttered the same prayer over those who were stoning him to death. They understood Jesus’ instructions and followed His model of loving their enemies.
The Purpose of Loving Your Enemies
It’s natural to wonder, why should we love our enemies? What’s the purpose behind this difficult command? Jesus gives us insight into the “why” behind it:
- It reflects the perfection of God – “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
- It testifies that you are a true child of God – “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44-45)
- It demonstrates trust in God’s justice and final judgment over evildoers (Romans 12:19)
- It follows Jesus’ example of intentionally loving the unlovable
- It overcomes evil with good (Romans 12:21)
As Jesus followers, we love our enemies because God first loved us when we were His enemies (Romans 5:8). Loving others – even those who persecute us – demonstrates God’s merciful character through us to the world.
How to Love Your Enemies
Putting Jesus’ command into practice can be very difficult. Loving your enemies is not about having a good feeling toward them, it’s a choice to intentionally bless them in word and deed. Here are some practical ways to walk out this command:
- Pray for them – bring them before God and ask Him to bless them
- Forgive them – release bitterness, resentment, and desire for revenge
- Do good to them – look for ways to meet their needs and serve them
- Speak well of them – don’t slander or gossip, but speak words of life
- Show kindness and mercy – treat them better than they deserve
- Share the gospel – remember they are lost without Christ
Ask God to supernaturally empower you to walk out this radical ethic. Pray for spiritual strength to love the unlovable and see others through Christ’s redemptive eyes. God may even use your witness of loving your enemies to draw some to repentance!
Old Testament Examples
While the command to “love your enemies” was revolutionary in Jesus’ day, there are glimpses of this ethic in the Old Testament as well. For example:
- Jacob and Esau – After deceiving his brother out of his blessing, Jacob feared Esau would kill him. But they were later reconciled and embraced (Genesis 33).
- Joseph and His Brothers – Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. But later Joseph demonstrated love and forgiveness to his brothers (Genesis 42-45).
- David and Saul – King Saul tried multiple times to kill David out of jealousy. But David spared Saul’s life and honored him (1 Samuel 24, 26).
- Elisha and The Army – The prophet Elisha fed enemy soldiers who came to capture him and sent them home unharmed (2 Kings 6:8-23).
These examples give us hope that with God’s help, we too can overcome evil with good and love our enemies as He instructs us.
Limits of Loving Enemies
Does loving your enemies mean allowing people to continually mistreat you? No, scripture gives us wisdom for setting boundaries against abuse and limiting future harm. For example:
- We can flee persecution when led by the Spirit (Matthew 10:23).
- We can defend others being oppressed (Proverbs 31:8-9).
- We can avoid those who are abusive (Proverbs 22:24-25).
- We can advocate for justice (Psalm 82:3-4).
- We can confront sinful behavior (Matthew 18:15-17).
The goal of loving enemies is redemption and restoration when possible. But we are not called to enable abuse or fail to protect ourselves or others from harm. Seek godly counsel if you are unsure how to set scriptural boundaries with those who persecute you.
Forgiveness vs. Trust
An important aspect of loving your enemies is forgiving those who have hurt you. Forgiveness releases a debt and cancels bitterness and vengeance. However, it does not necessarily mean fully restoring trust to an abusive person or allowing them to remain in close relationship.
Trust is earned over time based on patterns of changed behavior and repentance. God calls us to vigilantly guard our hearts (Proverbs 4:23). We can walk in forgiveness while still establishing wise boundaries against those who have not proven trustworthy.
Trust God’s Justice
It’s difficult to watch those who have harmed us seem to “get away with it.” But we can trust that perfect justice will one day prevail. God alone can and will fully right every wrong – if not in this life, then certainly in final judgment. “Do not take revenge…vengeance is mine” says the Lord (Romans 12:19).
Rather than obsessing over seeing enemies punished, Jesus calls us to a higher way – to show remarkable mercy, as God has shown us. Our job is simply to walk in obedience and love. The rest we can confidently entrust to Christ.
The Highest Example
No one demonstrated what it means to love enemies more than Jesus. Though mocked, cursed, and crucified, He offered the prayer, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). And because of His radical self-sacrifice on our behalf, we can find forgiveness and new life in Him today.
By God’s power, may we walk in this same merciful spirit toward those who persecute us. Rather than returning evil for evil, let’s overcome hatred with Christ-like love.